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Second Set: A celebration of the single life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2012 - Bands, as much as they rightly choose to think of themselves as collectively based artists, are also small, commercial endeavors. Once a group has paid to record tracks or have a logo created, they’ve put themselves onto the endless carousel of selling CDs and T-shirts at concerts, initiating Kickstarter campaigns, strategically mentioning those empty tip jars and generally leaning on friends, families and fans for some type of aid.

And, with a bit of luck, audiences stick around for a few minutes after their gigs, to make one of the most-sincere transactions you can engage in: buying a piece of merchandise off of the band, post-show; buys that are sealed, if you’re fortunate, with a handshake, hug or sidelong glance that says, “You and me ... we’re good.”

Mind you, there are times you hang around the periphery of the club, hoping to make contact with the group, only for them to establish residence in the green room for an hour. On those nights, you finally relent and slip a 10-spot in the hands of a roadie and wish them safe travels, even as you silently curse your bad luck at being stuck with a hired hand.

Or you wind up in a truly oddball situation with the artist, a moment that’ll forever touch on your impression of them. Once, I caught Adam Franklin at the Firebird, and bought off the man, himself, a trio of rare CDs and 45s. Offering him $25 for $24 of merchandise, I stood there for an awkward few seconds, my hand stretched out in anticipation of that missing dollar, only to have one of my favorite songwriters sit there with a blank expression after the change-free purchase. Dag. All things considered, Swervedriver and Franklin’s other bands, have given me more than 100-extra cents of pleasure over time. Why let a dollar come between friends?

But not every single, of course, is scored at shows; they’re not all limited-edition totems of a night that happened once, and once only. There are plenty of 45s available at the quality record stores around town, and there’s no lack of local content in those stacks. It’s not the same, but you can build a decent, conversation-starting 45 collection from scratch, with a little curiosity and a lot of $3-at-a-time investments.

Asking the experts

In paying a quick, e-mail visit to the some of the smartest minds in local music retailing business, I asked what makes the 45 such a lovely, little keepsake. And the first person to write back was apt one.

Joe Schwab not only heads up the brick-and-mortar version of Euclid Records, he  runs the lucrative online arm of Euclid, which does the lion’s share of the venerable store’s business. In recent years, he’s also launched a record label, Euclid Records Records, which largely began through a series of live-recorded 45s, encompassing local and national acts that played his store’s small, in-house stage. These days, the list of his acts is pretty long, as evidenced by the growing row of 45s that adorn a wall of Euclid Records, each artistically pleasing cover calling out for love and attention. They’re not as cheap as most 45 releases, but they are unique, always a big part of the appeal of old-school singles.

Asked about his own fandom of the form, Schwab says, “To me the beauty of a 45 is just how mysterious so many of them are. I guess it was always cheap and easy to press 45s and that, combined with the fact they have so little information, makes them a worthy hunt. Before you listen to them, you're looking for clues. First the band name. Does it sound cool? Then the label. Does it look cool? Then the producer. Can you trust him? Then the title hopefully gives it away. If it has the words ‘funk,’ ‘jam,’ ‘groove,’ ‘beat’ or has a ‘part 1 and 2,’ you know you're in for a good time! Hunting and collecting 45s is challenging, fun and very time-consuming.”

As for his own offerings, Schwab says that, “The 45s I put out are a combination of great music and fine art, hence the high price tag. They're extremely limited, so hopefully one day they'll be considered collectors items. I hope so, they might be my legacy!”

Over at Cherokee’s weird-and-wonderful Apop Records, co-founder Tiffany Minx says that the 45 still maintains a commercial foothold, though it’s a very specific character that comes in for them.

“We stock 'em, tho' I don't often think they move as quickly as LPs, and they certainly pull a specific type of buyer,” she says. “I feel that your everyday, casual music listener isn't as interested, whereas collectors and heavy enthusiasts are always willing to put forth the time to dig. It helps that 45s can contain bonus, alternate versions or otherwise non-LP tracks; things that those types look for, nay need! However, I think the niftiness factor hits home with more casual shoppers, who may pick one up on display 'cause it looks cool or as a gift.”

Minx is quick to note that she’s not even the primary buyer of the style, as “I personally am more into the 12" single format, easier for me to play. Plus, I collect disco, dance and electronic tracks, which you don't find in the 7" format, too often. But I do have a small, humble collection of select gems.”

Gabe Karabell, who clocks some hours at Apop, and is more-and-more finding himself in demand as a live deejay, says, “Apop sells a good deal of 45s. They sound great and are still the most affordable way to get music on vinyl, so a lot of DIY bands will choose the format for their first releases. There's a lot of new music that you can't hear otherwise. The same goes for a ton of older bands that were on the fringes of popular taste — they might have released a couple of singles and faded away — so this has been happening since the 1950s. Take into account that 45s predate LP records, and you've got something that symbolizes independent American music in a way no other medium can.

"Incidentally, 45 r.p.m. vinyl almost always plays louder than 33, which is great for spinning rock’n'roll."

Ten deep in the stacks

The following list isn’t inspired by March Madness, ranking 45s against one another in a battle for ultimate supremacy. In fact, it represents just a fraction of the singles, flexi-discs and even 10-inch releases by local bands that have landed in my collection over the years.

For whatever reason, each has an immediate memory attached. If you’re lucky and persistent, you can spend time digging and come up with these, too. Or you track down your own list of cherished favorites, both new and old.

The Apricots, “Everyday”/”Wonder Boy”/”Anxious Surfer” (Septophilia Records): If you didn’t know the band, The Apricots debut-and-only release hints at what Schwab says above. The band is only credited by first names (Tom, Joe, Chris, Karen). The vinyl is orange. There’s a sticker inside. And the cover is a bright yellow-and-orange combo that perfectly matches the upbeat pop contained inside. The Apricots had a special thing, for a quick second, a local pop supergroup that decided to leave one reminder of cool things that could’ve followed. As collectability goes, this one’s got the “it factor,” no doubt. (Hey! Want one? Only four bucks, here: hhbtm.com/category.php?all=1.)

Currer Bell, “Slinky”/”Camel’s Iris” (Faye Records): Though they weren’t technically a St. Louis band, these Columbia kids burned up the miles on I-70, establishing a regular gig HQ at Cicero’s Basement. The band produced a sort of quirky, minimalist goth that relied on two, primary weapons: the slightly creepy, otherworldly vocals of Pickles Lawford and the dominant, propulsive rhythms of drummer Rob Medcalf. In the early ‘90s, Faye was putting out the best music in Missouri, from all three music centers (STL, Columbia and KC) and there was no particular thread that united Faye releases; every band sounded plenty different. Pretty sure that on the night I bought this, I boozily lost a Currer Bell T-shirt in the gangway behind Cicero’s, before driving home and being pulled over by Maplewood cops halfway to Webster. Got a ticket and never found that shirt, but I didn’t spend the night in jail and didn’t lose their single. On balance, a plus-plus.

Fred Boettcher, “Another Time”/“Raining Again on My Love” (FB Records): The founder of the late Frederick’s Music Lounge, club namesake Fred Boettcher was a crooner on the Midwest circuit nearly a half-century ago. The music he created would’ve already been called “easy listening” by the time he offered these two cuts in 1989. Released on his own FB imprint, Boettcher was giving the older heads a chance to reconnect with their youth; and he was allowing the younger generation a personalized listen to the way things used to sound. Rooted in the songcraft of another time, Boettcher’s songs are about as close as you can get to hitting the supper-clubs of the bi-state area in, say, 1965. And that he handed out the 45s a couple decades later, free, to whomever showed interest ... well, that’s the kind of release that you hold onto for good. You might not even slip it onto the record player that often. But it’s there for when you need it, a reminder of the mortality of both people and cultural currents.

Davey Bold, “The Bold Humor of Davey Bold” (Norman Records): While in the throes of a serious Gaslight Square obsession a few years back, I turned to Euclid for my musical fix. During the ‘60s, Norman Records produced a wealth of Gaslight performers, and Bold is perhaps the oddest of the bunch. A comic of exactly that era’s sensibilities, Bold told slightly randy jokes to a cocktail-sipping crowd, their laughter prominently featured on his mostly live recordings. The formula was corny, but obviously popular; Bold riffed on the pretty girls in the room and on topical humor. The second side of this recording features “Airplane Bit” and “Restaurant Bit” and, yup, you guessed, Bold’s targets were airplanes and restaurants. There’s nothing revolutionary in the work, no Lenny Bruce breakthroughs on society’s foibles. Instead, this stuff is classic, mid-century, Borscht Belt yuck-a-lucks, recorded in Midtown to pleased audiences.

The Boorays, “Girl Repellent”/”You Move Me Like a Slug” (Faye): At some point, a truly cool local club is going to have a 45-only jukebox, loaded with the local stuff. When that happens, the Boorays small assortment of singles would be the easiest tracks to slot in there. The band crated crisp, clean, three-minutes-and-change pop, with a distinct sound that included two distinct vocalists/songwriters in Mark Stephens and Bob Kaemmerlen. The cool aqua-colored vinyl only makes sense for this surf-inspired gem.

Earwacks, “Lauren Garbo”/”The Trouble with My Treble is the Space in My Bass” (Wax Theatrix): Dated back to 1979, this one’s got all the hallmarks of a period piece. Earwacks created music under various guises for many years; this early version of their process showcased a group neatly fusing the sounds of the emerging new wave with a clear penchant with the progressive rock of their decade. These aren’t short tracks, with “Lauren Garbo” checking in at nearly six-minutes. This isn’t a slab of vinyl you’ll find often; my copy cost $14.99 at Euclid, and I didn’t flinch. Sometimes, history costs a little extra. (Only problem: there’s another 45 out there, “The Scrape.” It’s a matter of time.)

Fragile Porcelain Mice, “Skantch/More Cop Shows/Toss” (self-released): Let’s say that you’re standing in middle of a crowd, at a dead band’s 20 anniversary party/reunion show. At the end of the set they launch into a version of a signature track. Say, the show is Fragile Porcelain Mice at Pop’s, and the song’s “More Cop Shows.” As the crowd begins to violently lurch left-and-right, there’s a tiny light that goes off in your head. You’ve got this track on vinyl, a 45 from 1993 that people in this room would possibly kill to secure. Don’t ever think that having something that others want isn’t a thrill. And don’t ever let a record collector tell you that there’s not a virus of “I’ve got something that you don’t have (but want)” running through their veins. It’s there. It might sit for a while without eruption, but, man, when that band kicks in and that disc’s in your collection .... mmm. Sweet satisfaction.

The Newsboys, “Talking Off Balance”/”Standing on the Sun” (self-released): Sometimes it’s the bands you didn’t really know that matter. The Newsboys were running the scene in the years just prior to my understanding that there was something entertaining happening in the local clubs. To wind up finding a 1985 recording of them a full two-decades later is to take a ride in the ol’ hot tub time machine, back to the days when men teased their hair and synthesizers were the law of the land. The Newsboys, decades later, don’t give you the thrill of a band that was working years ahead of the curve. Nope, this is the music of the mid-’80s, pure and simple. Spin it loud, the flip the disc. Reach for a skinny tie and throw a knee-dip into your dancing. This is the sound of a moment, a particularly shiny, glorious moment.

Uncle Tupelo, “Gun”/”I Wanna Destroy You” (Rockville Records): My suspicion is that Uncle Tupelo, if so inclined, could’ve pumped out cool pop music like “Gun” as much as it would’ve liked. But the band’s well-chronicled internal politics kept these kinda tracks to a minimum, especially as the group wound its way toward a more American-tinged sound as it matured. This one’s a keeper, especially because of the flipside, cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Wanna Destroy You,” recorded by his band the Soft Boys. Truth be told, when I heard “I Wanna Destroy You” I didn’t know the Soft Boys from the Fat Boys; cooler heads on the block would’ve mocked this at the time, but it’s true. Uncle Tupelo, then, offered two gifts on this single: a truly boss original and an invite to discover one of their own favorite bands on the flip. Thanks, U.T.!

The Union Electric, “Thylacine”/”Bugs” (Poetry Scores): There’s perhaps a tendency to think of the 45 as a mostly past-tense affair, but the local combo The Union Electric have been keeping the form alive, largely due to songwriter Tim Rake’s love of the single. This one has all the hallmarks of what makes a 45 click, per Minx’s definition above. It’s got a song adapted from a poem (“Thylacine” by Stefene Russell). It’s got a small, informational insert with lyrics. It’s got an intriguing cover by Sleepy Kitty Arts. And the disc itself is primarily gray, with multi-colored swirls. It’s the perfect package of art, in multiple forms.

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