Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Gold Suits & Rock and Roll...
...chasing that elusive dream of stardom thru the ages...

If you're a baby-boomer, you've probably seen the (in)famous album cover of "Elvis Presley's Greatest Hits, Volume 2', the one that shows not just 'one' Elvis, but many 'Elvii' splashed all over the place. It probably wasn't the most practical thing to wear while doing hip gyrations on stage, but it did get the point across...Elvis, the 'golden boy', even back then, had a ton of fans; indeed, the cover screams out, "50 MILLION ELVIS FANS CAN'T BE WRONG"...basically, Elvis' greedy manager, Tom Parker, issued this album while Elvis was In The Army, doing soft duty in Germany, and the album was designed as a stop-gap measure so folks back home wouldn't forget about The King.

Basically, the album was full of hit singles. Under Parker's management, Elvis' hits rarely came out on Studio Albums; instead, all "E's" singles were saved up for sure-fire Greatest Hits Albums. However, who knows how many more Elvis Albums might've been sold if, say, 1 or 2 singles, together with other studio tracks, had been put together on separate albums? And how do you wash a gold suit? But ya gotta admit, this was one of the Rock Era's more memorable album covers.

Now, how about a rock and roll album cover no one remembers? Folksinger Phil Ochs reached the end of the turbulent '60s, deciding that Protest Music, which he'd been doing all along, had gone pretty much down the tubes. So he got it in his mind that he would combine folk-protest songs with music by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, and he even went as far as to get his very own Gold Suit! His 1970 Carnegie Hall "Gold Suit" concert was a pretty wild affair. His dedicated New York fans booed him. They wanted him to stick to well-known protest songs, such as "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore", which he did sing at the concert. But, before getting into Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley music, this folksinger then sang "Mona Lisa" (the Conway Twitty Version) which totally confused the crowd. He then followed that with his version of Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee", and yeah, the entire concert was pretty warped, although Phil's got a fine voice and does sing Elvis and Buddy Holly remarkably well. Phil's justification of the concert? He said that he was trying to "combine Elvis Presley with Che Guevara (a slain nationalist leader)", so I guess there was a method to his madness...maybe. Quite a bit of madness, nonetheless...

This is the back cover of Phil's 'Greatest Hits' album, replete with gold records and acknowledging that he didn't really have that many fans at all. He suffered from manic-depression, so he wasn't very 'logical' a lot of the time, but then again, a logical person might not have tried to sing folk songs in a Gold Suit. And, there are no 'hits' of his, or anyone else's, on this album; it featured all-new material which he wrote. He was advised against using the 'Greatest Hits' title, but he demanded the record company call it that. The album sold, maybe, 35,000 copies, and was the last of his studio albums released in his lifetime. Later on, Phil took some time off and went to Africa to explore for a while. He managed to get the expenses for that trip covered, for while over there, Phil recorded a single with African Tribal Musicians in the Swahili language, would you believe. I'm not kidding, that's the truth! Sadly, he passed away by his own hand in 1976. Marc Eliot's written a great Phil Ochs biography, "Death of a Rebel", should you want to research Mr. Ochs further. It's a great read.

It might sound like I've stretched the truth above, but honest, I haven't. It's crazy enough all by itself. As is this next little musical vignette: A record that was issued in 1969 is a true case of an Honest and Sincere Group who had basically No Talent At All. The music is amateurish, atonal, and just waaay 'out there', but eerily enough, after a few listens, it (almost) begins to make sense. The group consisted of three sisters who were forced to rehearse ad nauseum by their Dad in the basement room of their house in the backwaters of New Hampshire. Only 100 copies (yes, only a hundred) were distributed after all was said and done, but someone in the music business got hold of a copy, a DJ in New York actually played some of this album on the air, and later on, Frank Zappa said the record was better than anything the Beatles ever did. (Now THAT'S crazy...)

Here it is, folks...The Shaggs..."Philosophy of the World"...in which the title song (and I quote), says, "oh the rich people's got what the poor people want...and the poor people's got what the rich people want"...the guitars are out of tune, the tempos are ragged, and the vocals are, well, not really good at all. Yet, the primitive quality of this record really sets it apart...some critics have compared it to the free-radical jazz of Ornette Coleman, while others have called it the "worst album ever made".

So how did I get a hold this album if there were only 100 copies made available, most of those to radio stations? Well, the record was pressed periodically thru the '70s and '80s in small quantities, insuring its survival on the market, and then in 1999, someone actually conned RCA Victor records (a big, huge, monolithic national label) to re-issue it! I had read about the album in some long-forgotten book containing Record Reviews, when I saw the CD version in a Bargain Bin, I honestly had to hear how bad this album was...and lemme tell ya, folks, I try to keep an open mind, but I don't know...I think it's amazingly off-the-wall...but YOU be the judge...if yer brave enough...go ahead and click "Play" below. I dare ya. I double-dare ya...you really can't say "you've heard it all" 'til you've heard this...

Sounds kinda like three people, each in soundproof booths, playing at the same time and not being able to hear what their bandmates are doing, don't it? That's a starting point, I suppose. Actually it's not that bad; they do seem to be playing together at various points in the song, but wow...I'm wondering if any executives at RCA actually HEARD this disc...I mean, is this music? I suppose it is...but I'm not really sure...one of these days, I'd like to record songs I've written...but if I end up sounding like this...someone stop me, PLEASE!!!

Usually, I either lie a lot or at least stretch the truth in my posts. I thrive on inaccuracy and distortion, after all. But, sometimes Truth outdoes Fiction...and who knows, with the issuance of this post, maybe I'll start "Shagg-mania"! Or not...


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