In the late-Nineteen Eighties I was an aging kid working a colorful but caustic job on the seedy side of town.
Specifically, I was a graphic artist in a busy studio that supplied signs for most of the independently owned grocery store chains in the Philadelphia region.
We’d hand paint Flank Steak 99¢ / LB. on giant sheets of white paper and cut stencils so workers downstairs could screen print multiple copies. We’d use opaque paint and small brushes to stylize Green Giant Cling Peaches 3 cans / $2 on vellum that would be burned onto more screens for small shelf talkers so that every Shop-n-Bag, ShopRite and Shop-A-Lot could advertise their weekly specials. We thought it was art but it was a factory.
Every break we’d bust out pet projects.
On the top floor of a ramshackle warehouse two compadres and I dealt with short-tempered sales people and schizophrenic screen printers until lunch rolled around and we’d turn our collective attention to creative collaborations. Usually they were cartoons depicting the sales people and screen printers on amusing adventures but sometimes they were more earnest. Creating books, albums, and ambitious side works was infinitely more compelling than French Cut Green Beans 79¢.
Work or play, it was almost all done by hand. We had a stat camera for enlarging art and a percentage wheel but everything else was completely done by hand. Analog.
We were lucky we had paint brushes and desks and the owner likely told us as much. This outfit was as mean-spirited as they were frugal. No one got raises and our futures were as bleak as the crumbling brick building. So, naturally, I decided to propose marriage while employed there.
Instead of Christmas bonuses we all received small hams that the owner probably got for free, or traded for advertising, from one of the grocery stores. I was young so I really didn’t even know what a bonus was but some co-workers were so enraged not to receive a cash bonus that they hid their hams throughout the dilapidated building where they’d rot undiscovered.
Besides the life-long friends that I made art with every day, the place was a vile hive of misbegotten characters.
A printing press operator Motown fan that always wore the whitest shoes… A jazz loving screen printer who put his big flip-flopped foot on my desk and clipped his toenails with my artist scissors… The heavy metal head, coke-addled son of the owner who’d show up occasionally and boss everyone around for a day then disappear again.
It was the dawn of the computer age in the graphic arts and, when we weren’t busy creatively caricaturing superiors, my mates and I salivated over Apple ads in the back of Wired magazine.
Across the river, in a more affluent neighborhood, there was a computer store and we’d occasionally field trip there and bring back brochures to show the owner but that was like selling a cat a bath.
The art department was on the second floor and mildly insulated from the mayhem below that, besides the aforementioned freaks, also included a gaggle of flirty Philly girls, polyester-clad office drones, machinists, mechanics and truck drivers who brought the final product to the grocery stores early every morning.
One abnormally large bearded, tattooed truck driver and I loved talking music together and one day he says, “I have something I think you’ll dig.” He hands me a worn out, beat up cassette tape that had these mysterious, undecipherable jams on both sides of it.
The truck driver, who we all called T.D. (for Truck Driver), didn’t know who it was or where it had come from.
For years I played that analog music over and over asking anyone I thought would know who and what it was. I even sent a copy of it to a knowledgable disc jockey I respected and when he didn’t reply I respected him less and I called him on the air. He said he didn’t know but he probably never even listened to it.
Once, at a music festival I even sang one of the weirder tracks– figuring that to be the most recognizable– to a group of musicologists, but nothing. I never heard any of these songs on the radio and wrote it off as an undiscovered demo.
I shelved the tape with the rest of the 80s and, while it was boxed away the world changed.
Like a lot of things, technological advancement made the cassette player obsolete.
More years went by and I finally rigged up a tape deck to my Mac to digitize some of my earlier guitar paying and I remembered the old tape. I stuck it in and was transported back to that job, that building, those characters. I was still oddly compelled to this strange, unknown music and still had no idea what it was.
But today everyone has a computer in their pocket. Computers that can do amazing things, things like identify music.
Opening the Sound Hound app, I held the phone up to the speaker and in less than one minute I had discovered something undiscoverable– the identity of the bands, the songs, the lyrics on the tape.
Side A was Sopwith Camel from 1972.
I hadn’t heard of them previously and mostly agree with the other reviewers– “strange lyrics, passable musicianship but decidedly infectious.” If it hadn’t been for the poetry of that old cassette I might not even like them much but this album reminds me of those times even though I didn’t know who it was then.
Side B of the weird cassette was Aphrodite’s Child and Nina Hagen. Just as obtuse as Sopwith Camel but 180º different… Hagen was like a German Satanic Kate Bush all sexed up. Aphrodite’s Child offered one track, a 10+ minute track that crescendos in orgasmic screams that’s a nice sorbet to Side As strange playfulness. The perfect mix for driving a truck, one might imagine.
Also, just this week (30 years after first receiving TD’s tape), Spotify’s Discover Weekly included a track that struck me called Pinball by Brian Protheroe. Now, with the lightening fast reflexes of the Internet we learn that Mr. Protheroe was the lead singer of Sopwith Camel…
Let’s give some of this stuff a listen…
Orange Peel – Sopwith Camel
Coke, Suede & Waterbeds – Sopwith Camel
All The Seats Were Occupied – Aphrodite’s Child
Naturträne – Nina Hagen
Pinball – Brian Proheroe
This is not a testimonial for SoundHound, but it could be! I use it almost daily. When there’s an obscure cover in a television show, when there’s an interesting instrumental in a restaurant, when a commercial co-opts the hook of the moment…
There’s just no mystery in the digital age.